When Ross Waycaster began his studies at Mississippi State, the one thing he was sure of was that he loved making websites. He already had a background in computer programming, but as he plunged into his business information systems major, he sought a way to set himself apart in an ever-changing and competitive market.
So he signed up for an elective called Field Studies in iPhone Entrepreneurship, which combines the instruction of mobile phone application programming and business strategy. And like any good businessman, Waycaster, now in his second year at Mississippi State, offered up his own personal bottom line as a course evaluation.
"The money I earned from my app just went right into my bank account," he says during an interview with AOL Jobs. "You don't even have to go to work. You can just sit back and let it roll in." Even the most novice application developer keeps his data and financials closely guarded, but Waycaster did say that 17,000 people had already purchased one app that he created during the class, a game-based app called "Super Marrio Jump" which was inspired by the classic Nintendo Game.
Not bad for a final project. Waycaster's experience is in keeping with the countless success stories of one of the most specialized markets of the digital revolution -- mobile phone applications. Indeed, when the iPhone was launched in 2007, it was viewed as a watershed for both computing and telecommunications. And with the infusion of similar products like Android phones and other close cousins, the permanence of smartphones that make use of apps has been thrown into stark relief; the International Data Corp. projects that the number of smartphones to be shipped in this country will jump from 303.4 million in 2010 to 450 million this year.
Not surprisingly, a sector poised to double in volume in one calendar year has become a professional Oz, and Americans ranging from college students like Waycaster to the middle-aged felled by the Great Recession have sought to get in on the clickable pot at the end of the rainbow. The dream is not illusory. For a field just four years old, its members already boast an average annual salary of $63,000, according to Smart Trends.
With the opportunity to prepare graduating students for a burgeoning field, Rasmussen College has been at the forefront, along with Stanford, Mississippi State and others, in creating programs that train students to become app developers.
"It's not hard to see why," says Hap Aziz, the Creative Teaching and Learning Strategist at SunGard who designed the program at Rasmussen. "The key is to be focused," he told AOL Jobs, "and not try to do everything. But to have one idea, and do that particular task well."
Rasmussen, whose app development training program is just three quarters into its existence, plucked advisers from the EA gaming company to help design the courses. (Among the examples that Aziz says Rasmussen looks to in its classes is Grupon's app.) The program is yet to stand as a full-fledged major of its own, though.
Like all its peer programs, it builds off a fundamental understanding of computer science, and the C+, C++ and the Java programming languages. From there, the developers can begin creating basic buttons and text fields before moving on to more complex add-ons, such as voice recognition.
"After several months of direct practice with apps, the students can construct their own and get it on the iTunes store, even if they have no prior experience with app development," Aziz says.
Stanford was the very first school to offer such coursework, and did so even before Apple formally released the iPhone. Next was Mississippi State, the home of Waycaster. Other schools that have also gotten in on the app act include Harvard, Olin College and Syracuse. And while there's no formal league or consortium of schools that offer app development coursework, this past summer's apple development conference saw representatives from 17 universities.
"It provides a stepping stone. But you certainly can learn a lot of it on your own," Tyler Auten told AOL Jobs.
Auten studied app development at the New Jersey Institute of Technology before becoming the lead project manager at iSpeech, which specializes in both app and cloud-based technology.
Auten began successfully launching apps that went on to be sold via the Apple store during his student career. His first was an app called "Kids Be Gone," which emits very high-frequency tones that only children could hear -- in the interest of shooing them away. Auten, who graduated from NJIT in 2010, has also contributed to the app "Drive Safe.ly," which facilitates text-message dictation to help drivers avoid handlng a mobile phone while at the wheel. The app counts some 12 million users. But he says of the 12 students in his course, he was the only one who went on to work professionally with apps.
"It's like being an all-star boxer," he says. "You have to build the foundation somewhere, but it's going to take a lot of heart on your own to get good at it."
In total, there are some 200,000 apps available on the Apple store. Once the company approves an app, the developer must hand over 30 percent of the profits after paying the licensing fee. That deal is welcomed by app instructors, who sing the praises of the app marketplace.
"There's no other way to have a business that needs 99 dollars and offers you 100 million customers," Rodney Pearson, a professor of information systems at Mississippi State, told AOL Jobs.
Students at Mississippi State are offered classes in both basic and senior-level programming before they move on to study app development. "Usually, we don't get people from outside our department taking our classes. But for the iPhone development class, we've had students from 24 different majors."
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